Relational Matters: A Critique of Speculative Realism and a Defence of Non-Reductive Materialism

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This essay critiques the return to objects posited by certain new materialisms, most specifically the speculative realism of Harman, Meillassoux and Brassier. It argues that their “non-relational” and “autonomous” ontology represents a neo-positivist conception of reality. In place of such an atomistic ontology, I will suggest that the new materialisms develop a more productive, “non-reductive materialism”—a term drawn from analytic philosophy of mind. I will interpret Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy as crucial examples of such a materialism on the continental side. Rather than being based on the non-relational innerness of an object, this position instead takes into account matter’s fundamentally extended nature. Confirmed by examples such as the growing evidence for neuroplasticity, the externalist, non-reductive view advances the new materialist argument that matter is “agentive” and “active” rather than “mechanic” and “passive,” without slipping into an anti-social-constructionist biologism or behaviorism.
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